Bad Weather Thwarted Earlier Take Off Attempts by Crashed Lao Helicopter

A source says it made at least three efforts to lift off from an airport in the capital.

Victims' remains are lined up at the helicopter crash site in Xaysomboun province’s Longchaeng district, July 30, 2015.

A military helicopter that crashed last week while traveling to northern Laos, killing all 23 people aboard, had several attempts to take off from the capital Vientiane thwarted by bad weather, a military source said Tuesday, though investigators have not released an official cause for the accident.

Air traffic control in Vientiane lost contact with the MI-17 helicopter—registration number RDPL-34062—at 1:10 p.m. local time on July 27, shortly after it departed Wattay International Airport, heading for Houaphan and Xieng Khuang provinces.

The aircraft was located two days later, crashed in a remote area of Xaysomboun province’s Longchaeng district, with all 19 passengers and four crew members dead.

A military officer, who spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity, told RFA’s Lao Service that the helicopter had been hampered by heavy rains during earlier attempts to take off from Vientiane.

“The helicopter made three attempts to take off that day as the weather was very bad—it rained all day,” the officer said.

Officials with the Lao Air Traffic Control Division refused to provide any details of the flight when contacted by RFA.

An ongoing investigation has yet to release an official cause for the accident, though preliminary findings suggest recent heavy rains and extreme weather is likely to blame.

The weather had also hampered recovery efforts last week by a task force committee assigned to the crash site, which is reportedly located deep in the jungle on a slope of Phu Bia Mountain in Longchaeng.

According to sources, all 23 bodies were recovered and brought to Vientiane for identification on July 31, before being handed over to family members for funeral services.

Reports said that the helicopter was attempting to return Lieutenant Colonel Phouvone—and four of his family members—home to Houaphan province, where he had served as deputy commander of the regional military headquarters, after the officer received treatment in Vientiane’s Hospital 103.

Hospital 103 is a military hospital operated by the Ministry of Defense which was built to treat soldiers.

A doctor from Hospital 103 told RFA last week that three other passengers were health professionals from the facility accompanying Phouvone in the helicopter.

The identities of the other passengers and crew members were not immediately known.

Recent air disasters

Aircraft in impoverished Laos are mostly outdated, and the country has suffered at least two major air disasters within the last two years.

On May 17 last year, a Ukrainian-made Antonov AN-74TK-300 aircraft owned by the Lao military crashed while approaching an airport in Xiengkhuang, killing 17 passengers, including Lao Deputy Prime Minister Douangchay Phichit, Minister of Public Security Thongbanh Sengaphone, and two other high-ranking officials.

The group was en route to attend the 55th anniversary of “strategic gains” made by the Lao military during the Indochina War, according to state media.

The crash, which was attributed to a technical error by the pilot, is the second deadliest air disaster in Lao history, after the crash of Lao Airlines Flight 301 seven months earlier.

On Oct. 16, 2013, Flight 301—an ATR-72 turboprop—plunged into the Mekong River during bad weather as it approached Pakse Airport in southern Laos’s Champasak province, killing all 49 passengers.

Six Australians, seven French, five Thai, three South Koreans, two Vietnamese, as well as passengers from China, Myanmar, Taiwan and the U.S. were killed in the crash, which was also attributed to pilot error.

Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.